Throughout history, artists have been fascinated with the human body and have lauded its merits in such forms as portraits, sculpture and even musical overtures. To capture the essence of the human face, the contours of a muscle and the glint of an eye is no mean feat and artists are continually redefining the image of beauty. Indeed, many of the portraits we see hanging in galleries are of the beauties of their age but with a modern eye, these images of loveliness seem a little jaded; one wonders how the beauties of our manufactured age will stand the test of time1. One thing that has remained constant throughout the history of art is the artist's need for a model. This entry aims to shed light on an often overlooked, yet vital element of the cultural world we all inhabit.
People chose to become artist models for one of two reasons; they either need the money, or they are doing a favour for an artist friend who needs to save money and practice their talent. Nobody becomes an artist model for fun; sitting statue-still for up to four hours at a time is no-one's definition of a good time. Funnily enough though, there are always plenty of people wanting to pose, including actors, students and sportsmen and women. If you commission a painting and you are its subject, then this gives you some leeway. If you are not, in the several hours it takes for the painting to be completed, your life, body, time and mind are no longer your own. This is the reason why becoming an artists model is the staple work for the terminally short of money and, along with sperm donation, is one of the preferred cash earners of students.
If the artist tells you that you can remain dressed, ensure that you are wearing clothes that you feel great in, but also make sure that these garments are comfortable. There is nothing worse than discovering that your underwear is riding up your nether regions during the modelling. Retrieval is not only slightly embarrassing, but also it cannot be done with any sense of decorum. If this happens, you can almost guarantee that your chances of becoming an artist's muse are very slim.
If asked to pose nude, there are several things you may want to ask. The first thing most models will want to know is who they are posing for. There can be a world of difference in posing for an evening class or an A-Level class; teenagers can be our hardest critics... If you are asked to pose for a private viewing, you will need to take the necessary precautions - many models use an agency that require references. This initial contact is also the time to discuss fees. Most artists will pay £60 (at time of writing) for a session of four hours.
Even though you are posing nude, you will need a few accessories. These will mainly be in the form of a towel or a light dressing gown that will allow you to cover your modesty when the break comes. More often than not, you will find that there is something supplied for you, but you can almost guarantee that on the day you forget your towel, there is nothing there for you. If you have long hair, it is wise to take a brush and/or any accessories you need in case you are asked to have your hair up or down. Also, make sure you have applied an effective deodorant and that you have cleaned your feet; there is nothing worse than the odour of whiffy feet or armpits percolating through what could already be a stuffy hot room2.
Your artist, although he may not ask you, will want to know if you have any distinguishing features. While you may find your tribal tattoo or genital piercing rather fetching, your artist might not and it is thus best to tell them in advance. Forewarned is forearmed. Your mark will not count against you in most cases - what makes us different is what makes us interesting. So if you have a tattoo, body piercings, scars, large birth marks, stretch marks or bruises, let the artist know in advance.
Strike a Pose
Striking a pose is the most important part of the whole exercise. While you may look great in that Vogue pose3, it is not terribly practical as far as comfort is concerned. Finding a pose that strikes a balance between your comfort and the artist's vision can take up to half an hour. You have to find a position in which you can envision yourself staying in for up to an hour at a time. Under no circumstances should you strike a pose that you think the artist likes, but is uncomfortable for you. The end result will be a sore back for you, an irate artist and a canvas which has as much value as toilet paper. When striking a pose, pay heed to the following:
Avoid sitting with your legs rigidly straight.
Cross your feet rather than your legs.
Avoid having raised arms.
Make sure you are comfortable with the position of your hands.
Don't stretch your neck.
It is inevitable that you will feel a crick in your neck, pins and needles in your feet, cramps in your arms and numbness in the shoulder. In this event, let the artist know that you need a stretch; you may have to wait while he finishes the task in hand. Under no circumstances should you move without warning the artist. If you have to sneeze, just say the word 'Sneeze!' - at least he will have a few seconds to prepare. If you have to go to the toilet, you'll have to hold it; you should have gone beforehand. One of the toughest hurdles to jump is when you are hit by a wave of fatigue - your head will feel like lead and will bob up and down and your mind is obsessed with the thought of sleep. In such an instance, think of anything, usually a joke that made you laugh, which will keep you buoyed up for a few minutes. When this fails, tell the artist that you need a break and have a quick stretch and walk.
Difficult Body Parts
Every artist finds a particular body part difficult to capture on canvas. However, there are two bodily features universally acknowledged as being difficult to portray. Indeed, many masters are judged by their ability to faithfully render hands and lips onto a canvas.
Hands are notoriously tough objects to paint; with one stroke you could have a perfectly painted hand with the next you could have a flesh-coloured splodge. Traditional Kit-Cat4 portraits show the sitter in a 3/4 frame with one hand in the foreground, thus making the hand a focal point. You will usually be told if the artist is concentrating on your hands and this is when you must keep absolutely still. One move and the artist may have to scrape back that part of the canvas and start again.
It is not only the contours of the lips that are hard to reproduce, but also their colour too. If the artist is concentrating on your lips, it's best to keep quiet.
Famous Artist Models
- Dora Maar (Picasso)
- Elizabeth Siddal (Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
- Margaret Macdonald (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)